Friday, July 23, 2010

Libraries, the new Cupcakes!

© Kim Bolan Cullin, 2010, Teen Spaces 2nd Edition's photostream

Via YPulse and NPR, some thought provoking discussion this week about the growing buzz around libraries, and the surprising idea that libraries might be the "new big pop-culture wave." Or, as NPR put it, libraries are (or at least could very well become) the new cupcake.

I particularly enjoyed YPulse's interview with Kim Bolan Cullin, which links the apparent hype around libraries to a widespread movement to rejuvenate the public library system by better targeting and addressing youth, their needs and culture. Bolan Cullin is the author of the American Library Association's resource guide Teen Spaces: The Step-by-Step Library Makeover. The guide is now in its second edition, and will soon be joined by a companion piece on designing spaces for children. She's been studying design trends and devising solutions for several years now, and in the interview describes how much is changing when it comes to youth/children's services within public libraries across the US. For instance, she explains:
Over the years I’ve seen a huge shift in how libraries are thinking about space allocation and "space equity" for teens. This is happening with building revamps and renovations as well as with new building construction. More and more libraries are planning and designing space for teenagers as a priority rather than an afterthought. This is a huge step and I hope to see it continue. I have also been training people to "zone" their children’s libraries in order to create appropriate space for pre-teens, which is essential to this age group. This topic will be part of my upcoming book on Children’s Spaces so I hope to see more people reaching out to 9 – 12 year olds in the future.
In terms of the kind of ideological shifts Bolan Cullin sees as key drivers of this movement is an important change in the way that youth culture is approached and understood. She describes:
Increasingly there is an understanding that “adults are not teens” and adults cannot assume what is important or relevant to teenagers. [...] Many in the profession are looking at what’s behind [the Harry Potter and Twilight] “phenomenon” and trying to understand the appeal and then incorporating what they’ve learned into how they program for teens and how they make recommendations for materials, whether books or media. As many know, youth interests evolve and change faster than the typical adult can keep up with, but “keeping up with it” is part of a librarian’s job and getting teens involved in the whole process, whether it’s by them educating us, or them helping us plan and/or implement, is the true key to success.
Additionally, the movement appears to be striving for better gender representation - library services & collections for youth have traditionally leaned toward female readers (a quick glance at the YA section of any book store shows a similar trend), and so the incorporation of different genres, graphic novels, comics, manga, videogames and other media are apparently being used to create more gender inclusive spaces.

In terms of what this all looks like when put into practice, Bolan Cullin has compiled a Flickr collection of photos of youth libraries that she finds particularly awesome and well designed (as seen in the example at the top of this post). Although the YPulse article doesn't address it specifically, the discussion also reminds me of the recent news articles on library branches popping up in shopping malls as another way of targeting and adapting to youth culture.

My own perspective on this is definitely biased - having just joined a Faculty of Information, my increased exposure to libraries, library issues and news items was clearly inevitable. But that said, I'm nonetheless convinced that's something's up - I've been seeing library sites and videos popping up everywhere all summer, including some especially awesome things like the I Love Libraries website (and Facebook Group), and this pro-library parody of the Old Spice ad put together by BYU.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mobile Phones in TV (& YA Lit) Depictions of Pretty Little Teen Girls

©2010 Alloy Entertainment, television still from Pretty Little Liars

So, I've been watching Alloy Entertainment's most recent offering, Pretty Little Liars, and I must say it's every bit the guilty pleasure of Gossip Girl (one of Alloy's other hits) or of early seasons of The O.C. It's very much a soap opera, with its impossible plot lines and coincidences, scandalous-to-disturbing romances, and always impeccably beautiful actresses, etc. It also has the usual insane casting found in most TV high school dramas: the actresses playing the 16-year-old Pretty Little Liars are all in their 20s (with the possible exception of Shay Mitchell), the actor who plays Aria's teacher/secret boyfriend is only 3 years older than the actress (he's 24 and she's 21), Spencer and her "much older" sister are played by actresses aged 25 and 26 respectively...the usual silliness which results in everyone looking the same age (since they actually are) and lets writers blur the lines when it comes to in/appropriate behaviours and relationships. But the show also has some interesting things to say about female friendship, and has enough scary moments, thrills and titillating revelations to keep you (well, me, anyway) watching.

One of the things that struck me was the centrality of mobile phones to the show's story lines, action and the characters' daily lives. As in Gossip Girl (especially the first two seasons), and a bunch of cheesy teen horror movies released over the past few years, plot developments often arrive in the form of texts, which the characters receive and must then react to, which in turn drives much of the action. Interestingly, in both GG and PLL the sender of the texts ("Gossip Girl" and "A") is anonymous and threatening. "Her" texts (for in both cases the anonymous sender is encoded/thought of as female) are a source of emotional pain and strife, and/or a catalyst for altercations, confrontations, and destructive behaviours. At the same time, the power of the texts (and their senders) lies in their capacity to reveal and mobilize "truth". In both cases, Gossip Girl and A are seemingly ubiquitous - all seeing, all knowing - and the threat they pose is their ability to expose the characters' lies. And since both shows depict high school as a world of lies, pretense and performance, the characters often see protecting the lies as critical - the only way to preserve their social status, maintain their relationships, be successful, etc.

©2009 Alloy Entertainment: television still of Gossip Girl, courtesy of Videogum

To further complicate things is an underlying morality tale (often, though not always) that "the truth will set you free" - that the immediate pain of a lie revealed is ultimately worth it, that living with the consequences of the truth will make you a better person, bring you and your friends or family closer together, let you escape from the deceit and illusion of harmful high school hierarchies, and of course let you be your "true" self. In both shows, keeping secrets and telling lies is largely what created the trouble that the characters are now in (got themselves into). In PLL, for example, it's strongly implied that if the girls had simply told the truth last summer (when the events driving the show's plot took place), their mysterious tormentor "A" would have nothing to threaten them with and they could go on living their (albeit imperfect) lives uninterrupted.

What I particularly like about the way the shows, and the books before them, don't just include mobile phones but really explore the technology - to the point of occasionally coming close to critical analysis, very nearly deconstructing the role of mobile phones in youth's, and especially teen girls', lives. Pretty Little Liars depicts the mobile phone as taking precedence anytime it rings, to the point of not only distracting the girls from school or social relationships, but overshadowing major events in the girls' lives (e.g. the funeral in the first episode). And this preeminence of the devices -- or rather of the messages they carry -- is very much felt and noticed by the characters. They're disturbed by it and by what their phones are letting in...they try to block the unknown sender, but that causes even more problems (other people are blocked, the sender retaliates, etc.). But the devices themselves are not vilified - in fact, they are a crucial tool for collaboration, for safety and staying in touch. The girls use the phones to call for help, to warn each other, and to rally together to lend support and assistance. A spectrum of facets/uses of the technology are thus explored. The phone can be a source of threat and bullying, but it is more importantly a persistent link to the group.

The show also offers some context to the communicative function of mobile technology, placing it along a continuum of various methods and tools that can be similarly used to bully and torment. In light of the ongoing public discourse around texting and bullying, which often seems to approach this phenomenon as something totally new and totally the fault of the technology, I think this aspect of the story is particularly valuable. When the girls (temporarily) block "A" from calling their mobiles, s/he moves on to more traditional forms of communication - hand written or hand delivered messages, along with video and photographs (which can be digital or not). But this suddenly makes things a lot scarier and more threatening. The message scrawled on Spencer's bedroom mirror in red lipstick means that "A" was in the house with her. As the messages start appearing in increasingly intimate and immediate contexts, the threat is amplified tenfold, and the threat of physical danger all the more tangible. Suddenly the digital texts, though disruptive, don't seem so least they held an illusion of distance and containment.

©2010 Alloy Entertainment, television still from Pretty Little Liars, courtesy of The Remote Generation

Note: Alloy Entertainment recently launched a new digital division aimed at producing online cross-platform series, which you can read more about here. Seeing as the company started out as an online community turned book packager, and has been a key player in youth market research -based content development, I suppose it's not all that surprising that they (and the creative types they hire to write their books and other media products) spend enough time thinking about information technologies to generate more interesting treatments of them than is usually found on TV (not to mention other traditional media - the way computers and mobile phones are depicted in movies is often laughable).

Monday, July 12, 2010

(Another) CFP Alert: The Childhoods Conference: Mapping the Landscapes of Childhood

"Childhood Map" ©2009 by Joe Beale at ghost blog

Via the Centre for Research in Young People’s Texts and Cultures (CRYTC) website, another CFP for yet another fantastic looking conference on topics related to children's culture & media studies. This one seeks to explore a wide range of issues that will help map the state of child studies in Canada, as well as examine our ever changing notions & understandings of childhood(s). Here's the description from the conference website:
The landscape of child studies has changed. The Childhoods Conference: Mapping the Landscapes of Childhood is meant to engage scholars and practitioners from a wide variety of academic disciplines and institutions to consider the state of child studies in Canada. Beginning in the last decade of the 20th century, disciplines long dedicated to the study of the child and childhood have been revitalized, while those whose attention to childhood had waned significantly since mid-century are newly engaged with the central problematic of what the child and childhood represents. Figured in the plural, childhoods pose a significant crossroads for theoretical and empirical work on the nature of being human and development broadly construed, and childhood as an experience, as a social category, as an artistic and literary construct, as a category for historical and demographic analysis, as a category of personhood, and as a locus for human rights and policy interventions. Considering childhoods of the past, present and future , scholars will present research results, policy approaches, and theoretical paradigms that are emergent in this re-engagement with the child and childhoods. Bringing together divergent networks of expertise organized around childhoods, this conference offers the opportunity for new research collaborations and the scholarly dissemination of innovative research.

Venue: University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

Date: Thursday, May 5 - Saturday, May 7, 2011

Conference Format:

* Two days of multidisciplinary scholarly panels on conference themes
* Three separate keynote events
* A film night
* One day of poster and practitioner sessions
Conference themes include: Definitions of Childhood; Indigenous Theories of Childhood; Gender and childhood; Globalization; Technology; Adolescence; Empowerment; Health, Disability, and Risk. Keynote speakers include Dr. Allison James (University of Sheffield, Director of Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences (ICOSS)) and Dr. Mavis Reimer (University of well as the Canada Research Chair in the Culture of Childhood and Director of the CRYTC).

To participate in the conference you'll need to submit a 300-500 word proposal/abstract 300 and 500 words through conference website (see links on left hand side) by October 1, 2010. Multidisciplinary panels are welcome. Graduate students are encouraged to contribute posters on current research (there's even a prize attached).

Impressively, the conference will also include a series of practitioner workshops devoted to the following topics: Digital bullying; Brain development; and Changing family contexts.

Find out more (or submit an abstract) here, or by emailing childhoods [at]

Thursday, July 08, 2010

CFP Alert: Fear & Safety in Children's Literature

© 2009 Laika Entertainment, movie still from Coraline

Via the Exploring Childhood Studies mailing list, CFP for a conference next summer in Australia. It sounds positively awesome!
Fear and Safety in Children's Literature




Children’s literature has always been responsive to the tenor of the times. Texts for children and young adults take up the social, political, and humanistic interests and ideologies of the past and present, as well as speculate about the future. Since the earliest fairy tales, children’s writers have given imaginative interpretation to the darker, riskier side of society, while also offering reassurance, hope, and celebration of the human spirit.

The Congress will address a range of critically important topics, texts, and theories related to the theme of Fear and Safety in Children’s Literature. Confirmed keynote speakers are: Professor Mavis Reimer, Canada Chair in the Culture of Childhood, University of Winnipeg; Professor David Buckingham, Director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, London University (UK); and Professor Gillian Whitlock, University of Queensland (Australia).

Submissions for abstracts open: 19 July 2010.

Closing date: November 1, 2010.

Please visit the Congress website for details:

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

A Girl Story's "Pay-Per-View" Donations

© 2010 Mahindra Foundation

Via Kidscreen, news today about a fundraising initiative that uses the serial or "pay-per-chapter" model to raise money for girls' education in India. The campaign, called A Girl Story, ties access to a new web-based film series, presented in segments, with user donations. The idea is the result of a collaboration between Nanhi Kali ("For the Girl Child," part of Mahindra Foundation, a global NGO based out of Mumbai) and StrawberryFrog (a self-described "cultural movement agency," but really just a marketing/ad company), who are hoping that viewers will become sufficiently invested in the series that they will continue to donate the money required to keep the series alive. The first installment is free (naturally) and was launched about 3 weeks ago. After that, however, each new chapter or segment will only be added once (and if) viewers have pooled together $1000. A total of eleven segments are currently either in development or ready for broadcast, and viewers are reportedly already close to reaching the first $1K target needed to open the next paid-for segment. I was a bit confused about whether or not this is will be the first paid-for segment opened (and first $1K raised), as there are currently 4 segments available on the website, at the end of which a message appears stating (in the main character Tali's "voice") "I can only get so far if you don't give. Please donate", along with a bar graph indicating that the total raised is at $891/$1000.

Seems promising as a fundraising initiative, particularly since it already claims to be on target despite the fact that it hasn't received much press coverage until this week. The series (and website) itself is very stylish - animated in a sort of DIY aesthetic with basic sitar music (no talking so far). It features a simple but devastating story of Tali, who has to stay home and do housework while her brother gets to go to school and read (as depicted in the screenshot above). It also features some very clever use of Youtube technology, which lines up perfectly with the animated content.

However, to call this project the first donation-based "film series" is pretty far fetched. The segments are very short - the Intro (which could also function as a stand alone ad for the website) is about 30 seconds, while the first 4 "segments" are 14-20 seconds each. As a whole, it felt a lot more like watching a very pretty advertisement than anything like a film, and I'm skeptical that the segments will really be able to "hook" viewers to the point of paying the see the next one. That said, the creativity of the ad, along with the worthiness of the cause, will likely inspire some (perhaps many) to make a donation. Which, at the end of the day, is the point, so kudos should definitely go to A Girl Story as an innovative ad strategy. I just wish the PR around this campaign was more honest about its contents. I cringe at the thought of advertisements becoming pay-per-view matter how pretty or prosocial they might be.

You can read more about it on this post by Brenna Ehrlich over at Mashable, which includes some statements made by StrawberryFrog representatives that give a better sense of their strategy here, such as:
“As far as we know, this is the first donation-based film series,” says Britta Shell, account manager at StrawberryFrog. “It brings users into the donation process.” Basically, if people stop donating, the story stops as well, paralleling what happens to real-life girls when they’re not given enough money to gain an education. “You can really make a emotional connection to the donation,” adds Kris Seto, interactive producer at StrawberryFrog.
I hope that these links are made more explicit as the campaign unfolds - as it stands there seems to be a bit too much emphasis on the "media product" as value added feature, and too little on the ultimate goal of the series to "help real girls" become educated through crowd-sourced micro-donations. This emphasis is, as I mention above, paralleled in the press releases and coverage around the campaign, which similarly highlight the "film series". I should note here that the campaign has also been shortlisted in Cannes Lions, which may explain some of what's happening here.

Anyway, you can check out the site for yourself here. But be sure to also visit the Nanhi Kali website, which includes some very important and depressing information about the status and state of girlhood in India, as well as UNGEI - the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative - which operates in India and many other countries where girls are denied basic rights.